And so by the skin of our teeth and thanks to some inspired Berbatov magic, the incredible unbeaten run of the “Crap Invincibles” continues. Based on our first half display, the tag is well justified. As the song says, “We’re shit, and we’re top of the league”, but don’t forget, both parts of that statement are correct. This truly was a textbook definition of a game of two halves, with United exhibiting the best and worst parts of what has been prominent in our game all season, but what’s the cliché? The mark of champions? It was certainly evident tonight.
Thanks to my friend the M6 motorway I missed the first 15 minutes of the match, but I think the last 30 minutes of the first half can be safely extrapolated to explain the rest of it without any issues. From what I can gather, both teams lined-up in a 4-3-3 formation, as show below
So it was Nani on the right, Rooney on the left and Berba in the centre, with a midfield three of Fletcher, Scholes and Gibson and a back four of Evra, Vidic, Smalling and Rafael. No doubt this formation was adopted in order to try and counter the threat posed by the Blackpool midfield three of Vaughan, Grandin and Adam, who have the ability to pass the ball around and control the game from the centre of the park.
Unlike in previous away games, such as against Birmingham, United were getting men forward, with Scholes sitting deep and the remaining five front men pressing forwards. Blackpool, however, often had 9 outfield players behind the ball, and were able to cope with the United threat easily. Blackpool were also pressing extremely well, something United failed to cope with for the entirety of the first half, and even when United had the ball, half the Blackpool players were often inside the United half, forcing long balls from the back that were ultimately unsuccessful. Even Ed was punting the ball up the pitch, an attribute that, to be honest, has never been his forte. Just check out the chalkboards below for Vidic and VDS in the opening half an hour:
In the words of a Scottish sexist who could be seen at a dole queue near you in the next few days, “oh…my…goodness.” Long punts up the field? Really? Well on 30 minutes Fergie changed things around, and although I’m not the best at lip-reading (particularly for those who possess a rather thick Scottish accent), United switched to a 4-4-2, with Ferguson telling Rooney to “drop in the hole”, which therefore resulted in Gibson moving to the left.
United were enjoying a respectable portion of the possession prior to this though, but with Berbatov sometimes having to drop deep to receive the ball and with the two Blackpool defensive midfielders doing a good job of protecting the back four, perhaps Fergie felt that United needed to play higher up the pitch and give Blackpool more to worry about on the edge of the area so we could exploit the flanks (and the pace of Nani) more. A picture can tell a thousand words, and just look at that massive patch of grass on the edge of the Blackpool area that no United pass was played to in the opening half an hour (compared to Birmingham at home a few days before):
Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that Nani was finding little space in the more dangerous areas on the edge of the Blackpool area, and was forced to sit deeper and drift wider against Blackpool than compared to Birmingham:
Rooney also had a frustrating time on the left, often receiving the ball only to be faced by an imperious orange wall. But Scholes, as always, was passing beautifully, 23 out of 26 in the opening half an hour:
A couple of minutes later though, Blackpool broke through. With a small 3 vs 2 battle in the centre, they were able to win the ball back high up the pitch and play Varney though, who had made a great run behind the defence, with Vidic getting back just in the nick of time to force a corner. United though were able to break down the left with Evra, who used his skill to get down the byline and allow Gibson to drift in who, upon receiving the ball, decided to shoot rather than play it to Rooney.
Evra started getting forward more and United were able to string together some good passes, but Blackpool were able to use their numerical midfield advantage and sometimes exploit the space between the defence and midfield. United however were now attacking in greater numbers. With Evra bringing the ball forward this allowed seven white shirts to attack the Blackpool penalty area, but again, Blackpool were able to get enough men behind the ball and push United deep to the flanks.
Before the stroke of half time though, Blackpool were again able to pass the ball through United’s midfield and play Vaughan into the space between the defence and midfield, who then took the shot that forced the corner from which came Blackpool’s second goal (thanks to some poor marking by Rafael). Things seemed pretty dire at this point.
Then it got worse, with Blackpool nearly scoring within the first 15 seconds of the second half. However, with Giggs on the pitch, United seemed to possess a greater ability to cut through the opposition, with Giggs setting Nani up for an easy chance following a counter-attack from a Blackpool corner.
And with the two centre-forwards pegging back the Blackpool defensive line, this allowed Evra and Rafael to get up the pitch and overlap well, with Rafael exchanges passes with Nani and allowing the latter to get in a low-shot from the edge of the area, which ultimately led to a corner. This continued in the second-half, with Nani moving about the pitch and getting into much more dangerous, central positions compared to the first:
Blackpool were therefore forced to play the long ball, although one such diagonal ball resulted in what should have been a penalty for Blackpool, as Rafael clattered down Varney after himself and Nani were caught sleeping by that pass from the defence.
The extent of Blackpool’s restricted ability to play the short-game is shown in the chalkboards below. In the first 15 minutes of the first half, Blackpool completed 52 of 76 passes (68%), whereas in the first 15 of the second half, Blackpool completed 32 of 52 passes (61%).
And as has been the case many times this season when United play a 4-4-2, there was much interchanging of positions amongst the players, with Nani, as well as Rooney, drifting into the hole and into the centre, with Giggs moving to the opposite flank. On occasions, with one full-back moving up the pitch, United had a five-man midfield, and when attacking would often only have Vidic and Smalling at the back, with three playing across the centre and five up front. Fletcher and Scholes would sometimes drop deep to collect the ball and start new attacks. The threat up-top allowed the wingers and full-backs to overlap very effectively on the wings, with Rafael and Nani in particular working well together. This can be seen below by comparing Rafael’s passes in the first half with the second:
All of this attacking in numbers and exploiting the flanks forced Blackpool to sit deeper, and this in turn meant Untied could pressure Blackpool higher up the pitch and launch continuous waves of attacks. This is show in the chalkboards below, with United attempting 8 shots in the entire first half compared to 13 in the first half an hour of the second:
The extent of the number of bodies that United were throwing forward was epitomized in the 62nd minute, when a Giggs cross from the left-hand side of the area was anticipated by five United players in the box and Evra and Rafael prowling on the edge of the area in support. Although Blackpool had sufficient bodies back to defend the cross, it meant United were able to retain the ball in dangerous positions, which ultimately led to Scholes’ parried effort that forced a corner. This can be confirmed by looking at the positions from which Fletcher was making his passes in the first half an hour of the first half compared to the first half an hour of the second, with many more passes being made from and into Blackpool’s final third.
Another noticeable characteristic of the game was how much Rooney lost the ball under pressure compared to Berbatov. Both were dropping deep into the hole during the match in order to collect the ball and link up the play between the midfield and the wingers, but it seemed Berbatov was able to navigate his way out of most situations, unlike Rooney. Just look at their comparative passing statistics below. 24 out of 37 for Rooney compared to 32 out of 37 for Berbatov. And that doesn’t even show the number of times the players were dispossessed before the ball was played!
Due to United’s numbers upfront, with the two strikers and two wingers often occupying the Blackpool back four, Smalling attempted some ambitious long balls from the back to try and bypass the three-man Blackpool midfield. Although he was unsuccessful, it may have been this realisation that made up Fergie’s mind with regards to bringing Hernandez on for Rooney.
Hernandez came on in the 66th minute, and the next thing you know Scholes has played a beautiful ball over the top of the Blackpool defence, with Hernandez timing his run beautifully and catching them all off guard. Unfortunately however, a rather tame Hernandez shot wasted this opportunity.
Blackpool were still threatening going forward though, and at times were attacking 5 vs 6. However, Fletcher was doing a good job at tracking the runners, which allowed the back four to narrow up and deal easily with the balls into the box.
With Berbatov and Hernandez operating more like a proper strike partnership (although Berbatov still occasionally dropped deep to get the ball and link up play), this further made more use of the wingers. Quite simply, Giggs was doing the type of job on the left that we’d never see from Gibson. Just compare their chalkboards below:
United were eventually able to exploit Blackpool’s fading energy and concentration, with Nani playing in Fletcher, who made a run behind the Blackpool defence that went completely unnoticed. And as we all know, it was Fletcher’s pass inside the area across the face of goal that set up the first of United’s three goals. Scored by Berbatov, of course.
United continued to press, with Berbatov in particular issuing orders to Nani to continually press the Blackpool defence deep in their own half. And when Nani, rather impressively, dropped deep to win the ball on the edge of the D, Rafael was there to overlap to take up position as an advanced right-winger to maintain the pressure.
As with Hernandez’s earlier chance, another long ball caught out the fading Blackpool, with just two passes (from Ed to Giggs then Giggs to Hernandez) being enough to put Hernandez one-on-one with the keeper. This beautiful goal was another example of why having Giggs on the left was much better than having Gibson there. This isn’t to slag off Gibson, it could be said he was a victim of circumstance having been unfortunate enough to be part of that lacklusture first-half display, but I can’t see him haven’t performed that exquisite first touch and pass that Giggs made to set Hernandez through.
At this point Blackpool threw Harewood on as an additional threat upfront, and due to the reduced precariousness of the situation, United were sometimes more conservative in their approach by putting nine men behind the ball, using the two strikers as outlets on the wing to then look for the diagonal balls over and across the defence.
In the 80th minute the superb Rafael was taken off injured due to a concussion, and so Anderson came on in his place. As expected, this pushed Fletcher to right-back and Anderson into the centre of midfield with Scholes, with Berbatov and Hernandez playing closer together than Berbatov had done with Rooney.
Not much later Blackpool’s tired legs were evident again, with Fletcher being the first to react to a loose ball. He laid the ball off to Scholes, who managed to pick out Berbatov with another long ball over the top after Hernandez’s superb positioning was able to pull off the centre-back closest to Berbatov. They were literally only a few feet apart from one another moments before Scholes’ assist.
This can be seen (at a push!) by comparing Berbatov’s and Rooney’s passes when Rooney was on the pitch compared to Berbatov’s and Hernandez’s touches after the Mexican came on for the Englishman. Berbatov in particular played a much more central game following the introduction of Hernandez.
So in the end, because of the switch to a 4-4-2 (ish) and Berbatov’s technical superiority over Rooney, it made sense to bring on Hernandez and utilise his more direct, Solskjaer-esque attacking instincts after it became clear that Blackpool were exposed to the long-ball over the top. Berbatov also used his height well and had a good game in the air, yet another reason amongst many to praise his performance in the match.
The man of the match for me though was Ryan Giggs, whose direct running, calmness under pressure, intelligent passing and tireless pressing was just what United needed following a mediocre first half riddled with mistakes and sloppiness.
Something else we might be able to surmise from this performance is that United don’t suit a 4-3-3, possibly because we lack the players required to do the formation justice. Think of Barcelona, think of Chelsea, you need the classic destroyer/passer/creator combination in the centre. Whilst Fletcher and Scholes arguably fulfil two of those criteria, I don’t think anyone can say that Darren Gibson is a creator. The main problem was that United, as a whole, lacked the technique to cope with Blackpool’s first half pressing.
Would love your input and discussion on the above analysis, with Zonal Marking having not done anything on the match I’m afraid all the above opinions are my own! I think one thing we can safely say though is that, when Valencia is back, 4-4-2 may very much be back on the agenda.
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